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HOW TO BEGIN: METHODS AND SCRIPTURE TEXTS
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

You Probably Do This Already!
You might not have thought about it this way, but every time you attend Mass you pray and reflect on Scripture. The Eucharist itself originated in what the gospels and Paul's letters tell us of Jesus' last meal. The prayers and other texts of the Mass spoken by both priest and congregation are based on the Bible's words. The biblical readings and psalm response in the part of the Mass we call the Liturgy of the Word quote directly from Scripture. Homilies are the priest's reflections on those readings. Any thoughts the readings or homilies give you for your own life are your reflections on the readings.
If you pray any part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, almost everything you pray is a Bible text (and some of the thoughts that arise in you as you pray are your reflections.) When you pray the Our Father, you use words very similar to those taught by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13). Most of the Hail Mary consists of phrases from the first chapter of Luke. The Sign of the Cross quotes directly from the end of the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:19), where Jesus authorizes the disciples to baptize all nations "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
In the course of whatever Bible study you've done, you've certainly stopped to reflect on a parable of Jesus, or thought about your life in the light of one of his teachings, or learned words of praise or thanks from a psalm. You've probably wondered what it means to say God came down in fire at Mount Sinai or Jesus is the good shepherd, or what Mary might have been thinking after the angel Gabriel announced her future.
So, whether you've realized it or not, you've been praying and reflecting on Scripture in some way as long as you've been a Catholic, at the very least using prayers based on biblical texts and hearing and reflecting on the readings in the Liturgy of the Word. You've got a good foundation. Now, as a student of the Bible, build on it!
1. Expand Your Biblical Prayer Vocabulary
One way to develop your spiritual connection to Scripture is to expand your biblical prayer vocabulary: look for more prayer texts in the Bible and begin using them as your own prayers.
The easiest place to find new prayer texts is to look in the book of Psalms. It contains 150 prayers collected by ancient Israel, most of which were probably sung at worship in Jerusalem's temple. The psalms came into Christianity in the Jewish Bible of the early Christians, and both Jews and Christians today use them for prayer and worship. Much of the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office), for example, consists of psalms.
To help you get the most out of prayer with the psalms, learn something about them. See The Bible's Prayers, below, for resources on Psalms.
Many more prayers appear throughout the Bible, including:
  • Prayers of praise and thanks, such as the song of Hannah about her son in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and the canticle of Mary ("Magnificat") in Luke 1:46-55).
  • Prayers for wisdom, such as 1 Kings 3:5-9.
  • Prayers of penitence, such as Ezra 9:6-15.
  • Prayers of consolation, such as 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
  • Prayers about the glory of God, such as Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.
  • Prayers to God the Creator, such as Daniel 3:52-88.
  • Hymns about Christ, such as Philippians 2:5-11.
  • The special type of prayer known as a blessing, such as Numbers 6:24-26 and Ephesians 6:23.

(Look up a few of these texts to see they really are prayers!)

As with the psalms, you'll understand these prayers better if you learn something about them. A basic commentary, such as the Collegeville/ New Collegeville Commentary series can help. See The Bible's Prayers, below, to find more of the Bible's prayers.

2. Learn New Ways to Pray and Reflect with Scripture
In addition to learning new words of prayer, you can develop your spiritual connection with Scripture by learning new ways to experience any of the texts you read and study. Bible study uses and informs our minds (certainly a good thing when it comes to understanding ancient texts). Bible prayer and reflection speak with and to our hearts, souls, and imaginations.
In study, we do something. We learn information. We're active. We usually have a goal. We move on to the next goal when we're finished. In prayer and reflection, we may "do" very little with our minds. We stay quiet, listen, wait. We may work with pictures or people rather than words, or reflect for an hour on one verse. We pay attention to our emotions and to thoughts that seem to float into our minds. We seek to learn about our own lives through the texts of Scripture rather than about the texts themselves. We listen for the Lord's voice rather than our own.
Many of us have to learn these ways of prayer and reflection. It takes time and practice, but once you learn methods that suit you, you give yourself the tools to experience any Bible text in a deeper way. You also find yet another way to respond to God as you more consciously connect your faith and your daily life.
See Get Started, below, for easy ways to begin. See Learn to Pray and Reflect with the Bible for more complete resources.
3. Pray and Reflect with the Bible Regularly and Frequently
The more often you practice prayer and reflection, the more comfortable you'll be with these new ways. Committing yourself to regular practice puts you regularly in a situation where you'll deepen your experience of Scripture and come to know the things of God that are beyond study.
It's not easy to take time out of a busy and responsible life and turn it over to growing your relationship with God through Scripture. Start with 15 minutes three times a week. Put it on your calendar. After it's become a habit, add more time or another day. Do it step by step. Don't overwhelm yourself.
Or, just as it's easier for some people to regularly exercise when they join classes, it may be easier for you to join or form a group to support your commitment to praying and reflection on Scripture. The "group" could be two people, spouses or friends. It could be men working together, or women working together, or both.
Meet when and where it's convenient, which may not necessarily be at your parish. If you go to daily Mass, meet half an hour before or after Mass. If you already study the Bible with a group, add a time of reflection and prayer. Work your way together through one of the resources below. Talk about difficulties, insights, and deeper understandings. Share any times you sense God has been present.
Whether you work on your own or with the help of a group, praying and reflecting on the Bible regularly and frequently is the best way to help your Bible study shape your life as response to God.
4. Bible Study Is Essential Preparation for Prayer and Reflection
What we learn about Scripture is an essential step for prayer and reflection with Scripture.
Bible study, using resources such as those described in the other sections of this site, answers our modern questions and the difficulties we have with many biblical texts. We need to learn enough to have a sense of what the ancient authors meant and ancient readers heard, or we may pray and reflect out of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than with illumination.
Even a small amount of learning about a text will help you experience it in a deeper way.


RESOURCES: The Bible's Prayers

The Scripture Source Book for Catholics

Harcourt Religion Publishers (2008)

Chapter 7 of this book, "Personal Prayer Life of the Faithful," describes how Scripture is used in the life of the Church, discusses why it's good to pray with Scripture, explains the scriptural origins of Catholic devotions such as the Way of the Cross and the Rosary, presents an overview of how to pray with Scripture, and includes the most complete list of prayer texts in the Bible I've ever found!

Chapter 6, "Prayer Book of the Church," presents an overview of the Church's daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours: what it is, why and how to do it, and which psalms are included.

Chapter 7 is excellent overview and introduction to praying with Scripture that gives the Catholic reader perspective, inspiration, and very useful information. For individuals and groups, as well as an essential reference for parish ministers.

Chapter 6 is excellent for anyone who wants to get started with the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) or parish ministers who want to bring this way of prayer to their parish.

The Psalms: Advanced Beginner and Intermediate Resources

Use the resources I describe in this section after you've learned about the book of Psalms from more basic resources. You'll find basic resources that include the book of Psalms elsewhere on this site:

Psalms for All Seasons

by John F. Craghan Liturgical Press (1993)

The author, a biblical scholar and professor of religious studies, considers 55 psalms in order to help readers connect with the psalms as believers today and for prayer life today. He organizes the book by type of psalm (psalms of trust, lament, etc.) and addresses psalms prayed by individuals and by communities. Includes good basic explanations of the poetry of the psalms and how they served as ancient prayers.

A very good resource for individuals and groups who want to study and learn to pray the psalms at an advanced beginner level. A thoughtful book that provides information and also aids reflection.

NOTE: Little Rock Scripture Study has developed two 7-week, intermediate-level courses using this book. See Bible Study Programs.

The Gift of the Psalms

By Roland E. Murphy Hendrickson Publishers (2000)

The author's goal for this book is "to help you understand the ancient poetry of the psalms and make it yours" (p. ix). Fr. Murphy, a leading Catholic biblical scholar on the psalms, begins with the fact that ancient Israel, an ancient people with an ancient language and an ancient worldview, produced these songs. He offers the help modern Christians need to close the gap between that world and ours, including a look at how Christians have interpreted the psalms, the key ideas of Old Testament theology that appear everywhere in psalms, and how to pray the psalms as Christians today. More than half the book consists of short commentaries for each psalm.

An excellent resource for individuals or groups who want to study or pray the Psalms at an intermediate level. Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours will also find it helpful, as will parish ministers who preach, teach, or sing the psalms.

Praying the Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours:

New Light on Old Songs

By Richard Atherton Liguori (2004)

After a short introduction to the psalms that covers typical questions (Where did they come from? How are they poetry? What about "problem" psalms?) How do we pray psalms?), most of the book consists of heart-oriented reflections on each of the psalms used in the four-week psalm cycle in the Liturgy of the Hours. The reflections include key points from biblical scholarship, so you also learn about the psalms in an easy way. Also covers the canticle ("little song") texts used in the Liturgy of the Hours, biblical prayers that are not psalms.

Whether you want to get started with praying the Liturgy of the Hours, or have been praying it for awhile, this book will greatly enhance your understanding of the psalms and canticles you pray. Advanced beginner or intermediate level.


RESOURCES: Get Started

The Catholic Bible Study Handbook:

Second Revised Edition

By Jerome Kodell, O.S.B. St. Anthony Messenger Press (2001)

Written by the co-founder of the Little Rock Scripture Study program.

Chapter 11 of this book offers examples of how to study Bible passages (a gospel passage and a psalm) prayerfully. Chapter 13 is a short, inviting introduction to ways of praying the Bible, including lectio divina, meditation, imaging, and contemplation, and attitudes that support praying with the Bible.

Good resource for those who want to get started with a brief yet informative overview of ways to pray and reflect on Scripture.

Finding Your Bible: A Catholic's Guide

By Timothy Schehr St. Anthony Messenger Press (2004)

In addition to basic information about the Bible, the author of this short book leads the reader to deeper encounter with a variety of biblical texts through the people, conversations, and images the Bible offers. The author, a seminary teacher of Scripture, minmizes analysis and facts and focuses instead on imaginative and reflective engagement. Each chapter ends with creative and interesting reflection activities.

A beautiful and simple book that introduces readers to how they can meet and experience the people, conversations, and images of the Bible, in ways that go beyond reading words. Teaches methods and attitudes useful at any stage of Bible study. Great for a person who wants to ease into new ways with Scripture. Fun resource for a group.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults: Chapter 35, "God Calls Us to Pray"

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2006)

This chapter of the recently published adult catechism (a shorter, more readable version of the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church that is designed to teach and engage lay Catholics) is a fine, inspirational, and concise introduction to prayer. It describes prayer throughout Scripture; the sources of our prayer; guides for prayer; how we pray (with words, as meditation, as contemplation); the difficulties of regular prayer; and the necessity of prayer. Your parish probably has this book.

A very fine introduction to Catholic prayer that gives perspective on prayer in Scripture and with Scripture, as well as approaches to prayer in general. Every Catholic could benefit from reading this chapter.


RESOURCES: Learn to Pray and Reflect with the Bible

NOTE: See Lectio Divina for more complete resources on that method.

How to Pray with the Bible

By Page McKean Zyromski Paraclete Press (2009)

An easy-to-read and enjoyable introduction to different approaches to praying with Scripture and attitudes that help, written with humor and a personal touch. The author, an experienced biblical educator, brings in her own experience, points you to your experience, and offers simple creative exercises with texts from throughout the Bible (even genealogies!)

An easy and interesting introduction to several ways of Bible prayer and reflection. Excellent for individuals or groups, adults or teens.

Reading Scripture as the Word of God: Practical Approaches and Attitudes: Fourth Edition

By George Martin St. Anthony Messenger Press (1998)

A deeply spiritual and at the same time very practical book by a biblical educator and writer, which includes teaching both about studying the Bible and about the Bible as texts for our spiritual lives. What does it mean to "listen" to a Bible passage? How does the Word of God come in human words? How does God speak through a text? How does the Church listen? What is the power of God's word in our lives? Includes a study guide with excellent, thought-provoking questions for each chapter.

A wise and informative book for people who want a thoughtful presentation of what it means to pray and reflect on the Bible, as an individual and as a member of the Church, yet also want practical guidance on how to get started. With the reflection questions, a great resource for a group. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a good foundation for a deeper experience of Scripture.

A Retreat with... [Series]

Matthew: Going Beyond the Law

by Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M.

Mark: Embracing Discipleship

by Stephen C. Doyle

Luke: Stepping Out on the Word of God

by Barbara E. Reid, O.P.

John the Evangelist: That You May Have Life

by Raymond E. Brown, S.S.

St. Anthony Messenger Press (1998, 2000, 2001)

The primary places for us to meet Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ, are the gospels. A special way to deepen your experience of a gospel is to make a retreat based on a gospel. However, we don't all live near retreat centers and may not be able to step aside from family responsibilities. These books (part of a larger series including Peter, Paul, and the saints) brings a seven-day gospel-based retreat to you. Each volume is written by a biblical scholar who introduces you to your "retreat director," the evangelist. Each day's retreat includes opening prayers, instruction and thoughts from your "retreat director," closing prayers, and reflection questions. The seven-day format can be adapted for different schedules.

Excellent for both individuals and groups, especially after studying a gospel from start to finish. You'll reinforce what you learned about the gospel as you also (and primarily) reflect on it in a structured way.

HOW TO BEGIN


1. Think about the ways you've already been praying and reflecting with Scripture, such as at Mass, with Catholic prayers, and with any Bible study you've done. Build on that foundation.

2. Expand your biblical prayer vocabulary by learning about, praying, and reflecting on some of the psalms or some of the many other prayers in the Bible.

3. Learn some new ways to experience Scripture, ways that differ from the "mind work" of reading and study.

4. Pray and reflect with the Bible regularly and frequently, both to practice the methods and to grow your relationship with God through Scripture.

5. Forming or joining a group may help your commitment.

6. Remember that what you learn about the Bible and a biblical text is an essential step for prayer and reflection.


ACTIVITY 1

Look through the Bible. Are there any parts you'd really like to pray and reflect on but haven't yet done so? List them.


ACTIVITY 2

As you continue to study the Bible, look for prayer texts. Collect them in a special journal and use them in your own prayer.


ACTIVITY 3

Think about aspects of your life you'd like to reflect on in light of Scripture. Write them down. As you continue your study, identify texts that could help you.


ACTIVITY 4

Spend some time thinking about how you could bring regular prayer and reflection into your daily life. What would support you doing that? What would hinder you? When will you start?


ACTIVITY 5

From a resource on this page, choose just one new method of prayer or reflection, something that's very different from your normal approach. Practice it for a month.


KEEP LEARNING

"Contemplative Prayer Journey with Jesus" by Armand Nigro, S.J. (Scripture from Scratch N0797)

"How Jesus Prayed" by Michael Patella, O.S.B. (Scripture from Scratch N1103)

"The Lord's Prayer" by Leonard Doohan.

(Scripture from Scratch N0303)

More:

The Bible Today

The theme of the May/June 2010 issue is "Praying the Psalms Today." Individual issues of The Bible Today can be ordered from the publisher.